Government

Surfside Residents Fears New Construction One Year After Champlain Towers Collapse

Surfside resident Shannon Gallagher looks at the site of a new proposed high-rise condo from her balcony at the Carlise in Surfside.
Surfside resident Shannon Gallagher looks at the site of a new proposed high-rise condo from her balcony at the Carlise in Surfside. Photo courtesy of Shannon Gallagher
Shannon Gallagher was visiting family in Chicago, away from her home at the Carlisle on the Ocean apartment building in Surfside, on the morning of June 24, 2021, when the Champlain Towers South condominium collapsed just four blocks south of her residence. When her husband notified her of the collapse that was later found to have killed 98 of her neighbors, Gallagher was in shock. The news rattled the sleepy town as it searched for answers in the months that followed. But in December, when a grand jury report highlighted some of the environmental factors that might have led to the collapse and how warning signs were overlooked, Gallagher's shock turned to fear.

"When I started looking up different information, like reports and research and digging into the issue, that's when I became so terrified I couldn’t sleep," Gallagher tells New Times. "I was taking melatonin at night. I was a mess."

So when Gallagher learned of a new 11-story condo development proposed to go up next to her own building, which was built in 1965, she and other neighbors feared the months-long construction might compromise the structural integrity of the Carlisle, and that it would cause the aging building to shake as the Eighty Seven Park luxury condo tower built next to Champlain Towers South had done in the years before the collapse, prompting residents to complain. Though engineers who reviewed the monitoring reports later told the Miami Herald that the shaking from nearby construction was likely not the main cause of the collapse, they acknowledged it could have exacerbated existing damage to the aging structure.

Gallagher, who ran for a commission seat earlier this year and lost, is now suing the Town of Surfside to appeal its approval of the Hillcrest by the Sea project at 9165 Collins Ave. and have a judge review the site plans, arguing that commissioners gave the developer a sweetheart deal that allows the project to violate the town's code and ignore safety concerns. Until more information comes to light about what caused the 40-year-old Champlain Towers to collapse, Gallagher and others say, it's dangerous to approve large condo construction in close proximity to existing structures.

"Surfside’s tragic collapse highlights the need to end the practice of local governments granting favors to developers at the risk and cost of neighbors and the community," reads Gallagher's complaint. "Surfside was to review the Hillcrest Project on the merits, and require it to conform with the Town Charter and Zoning Ordinances. It failed to do so."

Hillcrest by the Sea is being developed by Fort Partners, a Miami-based firm that owns all Four Seasons hotels in South Florida, including the Four Seasons Hotel at the Surf Club in Surfside. On April 12, Surfside Town commissioners unanimously approved the Fort Partners' development plan despite Gallagher and other residents voicing safety concerns and alleged code and charter violations. As first reported by The Real Deal, Gallagher alleges that the Hillcrest by the Sea site plans put the building's setback, or minimum distance from another structure, on its east side at 25 feet instead of the required 30 feet. She also argues that a proposed rooftop structure will exceed town height restrictions.

Lillian Arango, an attorney representing Surfside, told The Real Deal that the project conforms to all applicable laws and codes. She did not respond to a request for comment from New Times via email.

One of residents' biggest concerns is the proposed construction of a subterranean garage beneath the Hillcrest by the Sea tower that will extend to within three feet of the property line of the Carlisle. Gallagher points out that the Eighty Seven Park luxury condo tower also included a subterranean garage.

Eighty Seven Park's developers, Terra Group, denied any wrongdoing or that their building contributed to the Champlain Towers South collapse in any way. The group was named in a class-action lawsuit brought by survivors and victims' family members and settled with the plaintiffs through their insurers for $400 million before trial.
click to enlarge
A mock-up site plan for Hillcrest by the Sea from February which shows plans for an underground garage near the neighboring property line.
Screenshot via Miami-Dade County Circuit Court
Tricia Foley, a Surfside resident who lives two blocks from the Carlisle, spoke out against the development at a zoning meeting in February.

"It's foolish and irresponsible to build that subterranean garage that close to another old building without knowledge of what brought down the Champlain Towers," Foley tells New Times.

"This commission is jacked up on developer money. They don't care about resident safety." — former Surfside Town Commissioner Eliana Salzhauer

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Then-Surfside Town Commissioner Eliana Salzhauer opposed the Hillcrest project when it came up on the commission agenda in February and tells New Times she had immediate concerns about the underground garage. But she lost her re-election bid in March, a month before the newly seated commission approved the project. She'd hoped city officials would be more cautious about approving new oceanfront construction in light of the Surfside tragedy.

"I would think that 100 percent of the commission would have the common sense to not approve a parking garage that would go all the way up to the property line of another building," Salzhauer says. "But this commission is jacked up on developer money. They don't care about resident safety."

Robert Lisman, who lives at Champlain Towers East, a condominium just north of the collapse site, is working with the homeowner-rights group Cyber Citizens for Justice. In the year since the fatal collapse, he has been outspoken about new development in the beachside town.

"We have so many old, fragile buildings, that we don't know the true state of many of them, whether or not they have saltwater intrusion or structural damage. There are so many unknowns," Lisman says. "There should be a moratorium or pause on all this new construction until we know all the details of what happened."

For Gallagher and her neighbors, living in Surfside post-collapse has meant living in fear of new construction.

"Since I read the grand jury report I've been worried to stay in my home," she says. "The uncertainty of the safety of my building and ongoing construction nuisance has put too much stress on me."

Gallagher filed her suit in May and filed an amended petition on June 10. Circuit Court Judge Maria de Jesus Santovenia has ordered the town to respond to Gallagher's lawsuit by July 4.

Fort Partners has not responded to a request for comment from New Times.
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Joshua Ceballos is staff writer for Miami New Times. He is a Florida International University alum and a born-and-bred Miami boy.
Contact: Joshua Ceballos